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Ethan Frome: Summary, Characters, Setting & Themes

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores Edith Wharton's dark masterpiece, Ethan Frome, centering upon the novel's key themes and most important characters. Additionally, the lesson examines some of the story's unique and significant features, including its use of setting and the frame narrative structure.

Lesson Overview

Edith Wharton packs a lot of heartbreak into her 1911 short, and arguably darkest, novel, Ethan Frome. It is the story of star-crossed lovers, Ethan Frome, and Mattie Silver, the dependent cousin of Ethan's embittered wife, Zenobia (Zeena).

But this is more than a simple story of a love triangle gone wrong. Wharton explores universal themes... How far should we go for love? Where do we find happiness? And how much of who we are is determined by forces outside of our control?

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton at Desk

Key Themes and Major Characters

The Grass Is Not Always Greener On the Other Side: A prevailing concern in Ethan Frome is the burden of one's obligation to family, and especially to one's spouse. Ethan is trapped in a miserable marriage to an angry hypochondriac of a wife, Zeena, who is more consumed with her fictitious ailments than with her husband's happiness.

Mattie Silver, who lives with Ethan and Zeena as a sort of housekeeper and caregiver to her cousin, is like a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stifling environment of Zeena's incessant criticisms and complaints. She is initially the picture of vibrant health, happiness, and promise. Ethan imagines that life with her would be much more exciting than the one he has.

Her red scarf plays a prominent role in the first glimpses we get of Mattie, and functions as an early warning of what is to come. The color of temptation, sin, and death, it suggests that the difference between Mattie's blooming radiance and Zeena's withering decrepitude is not nearly so clear cut.

Mattie may be what Ethan thinks he wants in the moment, but the red scarf warns that the bloom never stays long on the rose. Danger, hurt, and rage lie on the underside, and the more we try to escape our lives for something seemingly better, the more we ensnare ourselves in the same misery.

Duty vs. Desire: Ethan struggles between his desire for Mattie and his duty to his wife. When Zeena begins to suspect Ethan and Mattie's attraction, she hastily arranges for Mattie to leave the household, claiming that Mattie is bad for her supposedly deteriorating health.

It is only at this point, when faced at last with the loss of the one bright spot in his life, that the desperate Ethan acknowledges his feelings for Mattie. The two agree to run away together, and create a life in which happiness triumphs over obligation.

Money Makes the World Go 'Round: Ethan's and Mattie's exhilarating moment of freedom is fleeting, however, as Ethan quickly realizes that he has no money with which to run away. Desperate, Ethan resolves to cheat one of his own clients and friends, Mr. Hale, by requesting an advance on a lumber shipment that he knows he will not be around to deliver. But when Mrs. Hale praises Ethan for his loyalty to Zeena, Ethan is guilt-stricken.

Life in Ethan's hometown of Starkfield, Massachusetts is one of grinding poverty, and Ethan knows his actions will financially devastate the Hales, as well as Zeena, whom he would be leaving essentially destitute. His and Mattie's own financial futures would be bleak as well. Running away together would cause a scandal, haunting them for the rest of their lives. As members of the impoverished class, there would be no money to buy their way to freedom, to travel far enough and secretly enough to start anew.

Be Careful What You Wish For: Realizing the true consequences of his plan, Ethan ultimately abandons the idea. But, reluctant to part with her, he decides to take Mattie to the train station himself. On the way, they crest a hill that they had dreamt of sledding together and decide to make the dream come true at last.

The ride is exhilarating and dangerous, much like love, and once it's over, Mattie wants to go again, but for a different purpose. Unable to bear the thought of living without one another, the couple agree to steer the sled into the massive elm tree at the foot of the hill. It is better to die in one another's arms, they decide, than to live apart.

The sled hits the elm in a hard, glancing blow, and though Ethan and Mattie survive, they're terribly injured. The accident permanently paralyzes Mattie, and she spends the rest of her life in Ethan's home, where Zeena attentively cares for her. But Ethan's and Mattie's dream of a life together turns into a nightmare.

Mattie becomes hard, bitter, and complaining, far worse than Zeena had ever been, while Zeena flourishes in her role as caregiver--and victor over the two who had wronged her. Now Ethan and Mattie are inextricably bound together, but their bond is one of pain and suffering, in consequence of their actions.

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